Butter, margarine and spread – what is the difference?
In the UK we have strict regulations over what can be called a butter or a margarine.
Butter: The UK food standards agency classifies butter as a product with “a milk fat content of more than 80% but less than 90%”.
Margarine is “obtained from vegetable and/or animal fats with a fat content of more than 80% but less than 90%”. According to DEFRA only a “small number of producers in the UK make a fat spread that would legally qualify as margarine.” In this report only Tomor is classified as a margarine.
A spread is “a blend of plant and/or animal fats whose fat content is less than 80%”.
What's in a spread?
Over the years spreads have been promoted as the healthier alternative to butter due to the fact they contain more polyunsaturated and less saturated fats. However, more recently the health benefits have been contested.
While butter requires very little processing, margarines and spreads are highly processed and carbon intensive. They are usually made by combining water and cheap vegetable oils, such as palm, rapeseed or sunflower.
In the past many companies achieved this by using a process called hydrogenation. This is where liquid oils are hydrogenated by bubbling hydrogen through them to turn them into solid fats. However, concerns about this process leading to increased trans fats in products has meant many of the companies and supermarkets in this report have removed hydrogenated fats from their products.
In response to the need to reduce trans fats, many food manufacturers have turned to palm oil as the preferred replacement oil because, unlike most vegetable oils, it is solid at room temperature.
None of the brands included in this guide contain hydrogenated oils apart from Tomor.
As water and fat do not usually mix, emulsifiers such as lecithin or monoglycerine are used in spreads as well. Flavourings, stabilisers, colourings and preservatives are also added, along with artificial vitamins. Some spreads contain gelatine to help improve consistency.
Veggie and vegan brands
In this guide, all the spreads are suitable for vegetarians except: Benecol Light, Danpak, ASDA and the Lidl brands Vita D’or and Casaburo.
Suitable for vegans: Suma, Biona, Tomor, Vitalite and Pure Dairy Free.
A survey in 2013 by Consensus Action on Salt and Health looked at over 300 products and found a large proportion (62%) of ‘fats and spreads’ failed to achieve salt targets set out by the Department of Health in 2012. It found that on average people consume 11g of spreads a day, and that “whilst people are aware of the high fat content of fats and spreads and the risks linked to obesity, they rarely think about its contribution to their daily salt intake and their blood pressure.”
It also found that some diet spreads contained higher amounts of salt than full fat versions.
The organisation’s advice to consumers wanting to make healthier choices is:
- Opt for unsalted spreads and butters
- Think twice about diet spreads with less fat – they may have a higher salt content.
- Have smaller portions or use it less often.
- Opt for olive oil, canola (rapeseed) oil or other vegetable oils high in monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat when cooking, as they have no salt and less saturated fat than butter.
Palm oil scores
Clover, Utterly Butterly
Pure Dairy Free
Key: Scored out of 20.
Best (14-20) Middle (8-13) Worst (0-7)
Kerry Group is the producer of Pure Dairy Free spread. The company is split into three divisions, which include foods, and is a leading supplier of branded and non-branded foods. Another part of the business focuses on farming in order to supply Kerry with dairy ingredients. Again the company has subsidiaries in countries considered by Ethical Consumer to be governed by oppressive regimes.
In May 2012 the Irish Independent website reported that the Kerry Group was working on a radical intellectual property management plan to slash its tax bill by setting up a subsidiary in Luxembourg. The company had been advised to set up Kerry Luxembourg Sarl in order to reduce its tax bill by millions annually. Kerry Group received Ethical Consumer’s worst rating for likely use of tax avoidance strategies.
Raisio is a Finnish company with two divisions: Brands and Raisioagro. In 2014, Raisio decided to focus its activities on cattle and fish feeds and on plant cultivation. The company owns the Benecol brand which it claims reduces ‘bad’ cholesterol.
Lidl’s score went down from an ethiscore of 2.5 to 1.5 due a boycott call against the company by Viva! for selling kangaroo meat, which is available in the UK. Viva! stated that “the trade in kangaroo meat helps drive what is currently the biggest massacre of wild land animals on the planet. For almost every female kangaroo killed to fill your freezers with kangaroo meat, two other lives will be snuffed out. Around a million baby kangaroos die each year because of the trade in kangaroo parts. There can be no justification for this. Commercialising wildlife is deeply irresponsible.”
Walmart’s ethiscore decreased from 1 to 0.5 due to the fact that its supply chain management score has been reduced from a best to a middle rating. This is because in its 2015 Sustainability Report it did not include details of audit results. In the previous year it had included a clear breakdown of its Global Audit results with a breakdown of the scale of violations.
While its parent company may not be doing too well sourcing sustainable palm oil – only 54% of Wal-Mart’s palm oil was said to be certified sustainable – Asda, on the other hand, has achieved 100% RSPO certified palm oil.
1 Yellow Fats and Edible Oils Mintel August 2014
2 Guidance on Legislation for Spreadable Fats and Other Yellow Fat Spreads Revision 1 Food Standards Agency June 2010
3 Consultation on revoking Regulation of the Spreadable Fats (Marketing Standards) and Milk and Milk Products (Protection of Designations) (England) Regulations 2008 – margarine fortification Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs February 2014
4 At last, the truth: Butter is good for you – and margarine is chemical gunk Mail Online 7th February 2013
5 FDA Bans Trans Fats: What Does This Mean for Palm Oil Consumption in the US? Union of Concern Scientists 16th June 2015
6 New Research Exposes Completely Unnecessary Levels of Salt Hidden in Butter and Margarine, Consensus Action on Salt & Health 2013
This product guide is part of a Special Report on Palm Oil. See what's in the rest of the report.